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May 4, 2017 Strategies to Build Executive Functioning Skills, Part 2 By John DePasquale
Grades , 6–8, 9–12

    In Part 1 of my two posts on strategies to build executive functioning, I explored organization and prioritization as ways to support students who struggle with executive functioning. Since skills related to executive functioning are important for successful classroom learning, I offer additional strategies and ideas to develop students’ working memory and self-monitoring abilities in this second part.

    Working Memory

    Working memory involves the complicated mental process of remembering and holding on to important and relevant information in order to use it. We use our working memory throughout the day to simultaneously remember and use information to complete a variety of tasks. This frequently occurs in the classroom. For example, consider a teacher giving oral instructions to a class. This common occurrence requires students to use their working memory to do three things all at once: hear and understand the verbal instructions, remember them, and then immediately follow them.

    Additionally, working memory is essential to math and reading comprehension. In math, students use working memory to remember numbers and calculations while working on multistep number problems. For reading comprehension, students use working memory to remember important ideas and information as they read a text. For students who struggle with working memory, remembering and using information at the same time can be overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for them to forget how to complete a task they’ve started or to abandon a task altogether out of frustration. It is important to recognize these behaviors as possible signs of a student’s difficulty with working memory.

    To help strengthen students’ working memory, here are a few suggestions:

    ·      Take a multisensory approach. You can develop students’ working memory by presenting information to them through three different sensory modalities: visual, auditory, and tactile. Students are more likely to remember important information that is presented through a multisensory approach. When giving oral instructions to a class, display the directions in words or pictures and have students count along on their hands for directions involving multiple steps.

    ·      Annotate with purpose. Teach students to actively read with a pen in their hands. Students improve their working memory by adding annotations in the margins of a text as they read. Students can include annotations to keep track of important ideas and information they need to remember to understand the text. Head over to Mary Blow’s blog post "Engage Readers and Increase Comprehension: Annotate Text" to learn more about teaching students to annotate.

    ·      Visualize math. Encourage students to create mental images to visualize different components of multistep math problems. Visualization is a useful strategy because it activates a student’s working memory by creating a meaningful and visual context for the math problem.

    ·      Continually connect. Students are more likely to remember important ideas if they are able to relate or connect to the information. As teachers, we can develop students’ working memory by continually making explicit connections to previous lessons or students’ prior experiences and knowledge.

    Self-Monitoring

    Self-monitoring includes the skills students use to decide for themselves when and how to use a particular executive functioning strategy, monitor its effectiveness, and make any needed adjustments to strategy. Teaching students to internalize how to use various strategies is the ultimate goal of supporting all students with executive functioning, especially those who struggle. Students who have difficulty self-monitoring don’t always select the best strategy to complete a specific task and may have a hard time recognizing when they are stuck or confused. Also, revising or checking completed work is a challenge for students who struggle with self-monitoring.

    Here are quick ways to encourage students to self-monitor:

    ·      Check your understanding. The key to self-monitoring is to teach students to use frequent and varied checks of their understanding. I encourage students to pause occasionally while they work to talk through their learning process. This promotes reflection and makes students more aware of their learning and process. As they work independently, my students know to expect three quick, but important, questions:

    What are you working on?

    How’s it going?

    What’s next?

    By asking my students to talk through their learning process they develop skills to be more self-aware and are eventually better able to independently monitor their work.   

    ·      Condense ideas. Pausing to condense important ideas is a strategy students can use as they read to self-monitor their comprehension. Paragraph shrinking is a quick way students can develop self-monitoring skills. Paragraph shrinking is a reading comprehension strategy that is part of the Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) program developed at Vanderbilt University. Although this strategy was developed to use with reading partners, it can easily be adapted as an independent self-monitoring strategy. The paragraph shrinking strategy allows students to summarize the main ideas of a section of text. After reading a portion of text, students pause to:

    Name “the who” or “what” of the section.

    Tell the most important thing about “the who” or “what.”

    State the main idea of the section in 10 words or less.

    With time and practice, students develop their ability to independently self-monitor their reading comprehension.

    ·      Wield a red pen. There’s power in a red pen. If you're like me, you too avoid using a red pen to write comments on student work. Studies have shown, and generations of schoolchildren would agree, that students typically have a negative response to comments written by teachers on their work in red ink. However, I’ve learned the opposite is true if I turn the power of the red pen over to my students. My students are more likely to revise and comment on their own work if I give them a red pen. Using a different color pen is an effective way for students to self-monitor their writing.

    Find What Works

    Since students struggle with executive functioning skills in a number of different ways, they require different levels of support. To help struggling students, I think it is best to gradually introduce strategies and not overwhelm them by trying out too many all at once. Be consistent, but be open to reevaluating modifying the strategy if after some time it doesn’t appear to be working for the student.

    In Part 1 of my two posts on strategies to build executive functioning, I explored organization and prioritization as ways to support students who struggle with executive functioning. Since skills related to executive functioning are important for successful classroom learning, I offer additional strategies and ideas to develop students’ working memory and self-monitoring abilities in this second part.

    Working Memory

    Working memory involves the complicated mental process of remembering and holding on to important and relevant information in order to use it. We use our working memory throughout the day to simultaneously remember and use information to complete a variety of tasks. This frequently occurs in the classroom. For example, consider a teacher giving oral instructions to a class. This common occurrence requires students to use their working memory to do three things all at once: hear and understand the verbal instructions, remember them, and then immediately follow them.

    Additionally, working memory is essential to math and reading comprehension. In math, students use working memory to remember numbers and calculations while working on multistep number problems. For reading comprehension, students use working memory to remember important ideas and information as they read a text. For students who struggle with working memory, remembering and using information at the same time can be overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for them to forget how to complete a task they’ve started or to abandon a task altogether out of frustration. It is important to recognize these behaviors as possible signs of a student’s difficulty with working memory.

    To help strengthen students’ working memory, here are a few suggestions:

    ·      Take a multisensory approach. You can develop students’ working memory by presenting information to them through three different sensory modalities: visual, auditory, and tactile. Students are more likely to remember important information that is presented through a multisensory approach. When giving oral instructions to a class, display the directions in words or pictures and have students count along on their hands for directions involving multiple steps.

    ·      Annotate with purpose. Teach students to actively read with a pen in their hands. Students improve their working memory by adding annotations in the margins of a text as they read. Students can include annotations to keep track of important ideas and information they need to remember to understand the text. Head over to Mary Blow’s blog post "Engage Readers and Increase Comprehension: Annotate Text" to learn more about teaching students to annotate.

    ·      Visualize math. Encourage students to create mental images to visualize different components of multistep math problems. Visualization is a useful strategy because it activates a student’s working memory by creating a meaningful and visual context for the math problem.

    ·      Continually connect. Students are more likely to remember important ideas if they are able to relate or connect to the information. As teachers, we can develop students’ working memory by continually making explicit connections to previous lessons or students’ prior experiences and knowledge.

    Self-Monitoring

    Self-monitoring includes the skills students use to decide for themselves when and how to use a particular executive functioning strategy, monitor its effectiveness, and make any needed adjustments to strategy. Teaching students to internalize how to use various strategies is the ultimate goal of supporting all students with executive functioning, especially those who struggle. Students who have difficulty self-monitoring don’t always select the best strategy to complete a specific task and may have a hard time recognizing when they are stuck or confused. Also, revising or checking completed work is a challenge for students who struggle with self-monitoring.

    Here are quick ways to encourage students to self-monitor:

    ·      Check your understanding. The key to self-monitoring is to teach students to use frequent and varied checks of their understanding. I encourage students to pause occasionally while they work to talk through their learning process. This promotes reflection and makes students more aware of their learning and process. As they work independently, my students know to expect three quick, but important, questions:

    What are you working on?

    How’s it going?

    What’s next?

    By asking my students to talk through their learning process they develop skills to be more self-aware and are eventually better able to independently monitor their work.   

    ·      Condense ideas. Pausing to condense important ideas is a strategy students can use as they read to self-monitor their comprehension. Paragraph shrinking is a quick way students can develop self-monitoring skills. Paragraph shrinking is a reading comprehension strategy that is part of the Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) program developed at Vanderbilt University. Although this strategy was developed to use with reading partners, it can easily be adapted as an independent self-monitoring strategy. The paragraph shrinking strategy allows students to summarize the main ideas of a section of text. After reading a portion of text, students pause to:

    Name “the who” or “what” of the section.

    Tell the most important thing about “the who” or “what.”

    State the main idea of the section in 10 words or less.

    With time and practice, students develop their ability to independently self-monitor their reading comprehension.

    ·      Wield a red pen. There’s power in a red pen. If you're like me, you too avoid using a red pen to write comments on student work. Studies have shown, and generations of schoolchildren would agree, that students typically have a negative response to comments written by teachers on their work in red ink. However, I’ve learned the opposite is true if I turn the power of the red pen over to my students. My students are more likely to revise and comment on their own work if I give them a red pen. Using a different color pen is an effective way for students to self-monitor their writing.

    Find What Works

    Since students struggle with executive functioning skills in a number of different ways, they require different levels of support. To help struggling students, I think it is best to gradually introduce strategies and not overwhelm them by trying out too many all at once. Be consistent, but be open to reevaluating modifying the strategy if after some time it doesn’t appear to be working for the student.

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